Environmental Education & the New Normal

You are probably tired of reading about it. You are probably tired of hearing about it. I know I am.

It is no surprise that nothing will be the same in the wake of current events. We are challenged with new information every day that forces us to rethink our next move. Some choices are naturally harder than others. As an educator, I’ve developed a strong sense of workplace flexibility that has translated well into the world that we are currently living in, but this begets a new question that has never really crossed my mind before: is the workplace itself flexible? I’m used to adapting to whatever situation is thrown at me from anyone at just about any angle, but the places I’ve worked were constant and never really needed to make split-second changes as an entire organization.

Well, here we are, not necessarily making split-second choices, but trying to figure out how to move forward as entire entities and how to translate our flexibility as educators to the places that we work. The information below includes details on some of the more common talking points that I’ve heard.

On-Site VS Off-Site VS Virtual

Many facilities are most comfortable with and well-equipped to handle on-site programming. Conversations are starting about how to begin again and there are a lot of ideas floating around. Some places are talking about limiting group visits to one a day, with an additional limitation on the number of participants. Some places are talking about moving all facility admission to a reservation-only system, which would also then place a limitation on participants. There’s also talk about having guided flows to follow, touch-free encounters or experiences, setting up ropes or other barriers and markings to maintain distancing protocols, and requiring masks and/or gloves for admission.

One of the more interesting thoughts I’ve come across is the idea of moving to (or focusing more heavily on) outreach programming. The heart of the idea is that it is easier to get one or two staff members to follow guidelines at the facility they are visiting as opposed to expecting all members of a group (any size, really) to follow guidelines at their facility. Of course, not every facility is prepared to send their team on the road and others are not particularly suited for it due to the nature of their programs (some simply require a visit to make sense of it), but it is most certainly an option worth considering if it is attainable for you, particularly as it pertains to schools reopening.

It may be too soon to say anything about virtual learning opportunities in the long-term. Formats, content, and operating platforms are extremely varied at this moment and not all are created equal, I’m afraid. I feel confident in saying that many places that DO offer these opportunities on a regular basis are probably seeing at least some sort of increase in participation (depending on format, of course, since classrooms are out and more independent learning is in). It’s wonderful at the moment when choices are so limited, but is it going to last? Nobody knows. Is it worth investing in the technology to operate such a system? Again, nobody knows, but my initial thought would be to ask if it is something you are able and willing to maintain. Will you continue to offer virtual learning when we establish a new normal or is it an opportunistic choice? Most places won’t be shuttered forever and, after adding up equipment and marketing costs, it may not be the most cost effective choice to start up an online program (especially for small facilities) until we have more information about what the 2020-2021 school year will operate. However, if the opportunity presents itself, it might not be a bad idea to research what is currently available and see if anything resonates with how you might envision virtual learning at your facility.

Outside VS Inside

Some facilities only have outdoor spaces for the public and those may be experience some faster recoveries. People are able to be more cautious of crowds and, hopefully, social distancing guidelines. Staying outside makes it easier to follow recommendations and keep the flow of foot traffic moving. Some facilities only have indoor spaces and may have a more difficult time figuring out how to adjust. Some of the more common ideas to resolve issues include capping the number of people in the building at one time (which may be difficult to monitor depending on your set-up) and having a guided flow for foot traffic (follow the arrows, please). Regardless, cleaning protocols will probably need to be bumped up since we tend to touch things.

Some places have both indoors and outdoors, leaving different options on the table. One facility I am familiar with, for example, is planning to reopen their outdoor spaces for visitors when it is safe to do so, but will continue to keep their indoor areas locked to guests for the immediate future. They are set up in such a way that some of the indoor things can be brought outside so that people can still have those experiences, but in a less confined setting.

Public VS Private

Large public programs were one of the first things to go in the places that I have worked. Daily shows, talks, and encounters open to the public were cut from daily schedules in order to avoid the creation of a crowd. Private programs, however, were able to hand on a little longer since they were either small in size to begin with or containing a group of people who already had daily exposure to each other. Looking forward, it is likely that many places will start with small, private programs or have strict caps on the number of persons admitted to any public program in order to maintain any distancing guidelines that might be in place at such a time.

Moving Forward

There are many factors influencing what starting up again will look like and it should not be overlooked that a facility’s size, reliance on gate admissions, and infrastructure will all play an important role in what the eventual product will look like. I have heard of one place that has already decided to completely scrap education programs and, in fact, the entire education department until 2022. Let’s hope that this is an outlier and that the vast majority of our facilities – no matter what they may be – are planning on making some form of adjustment to accommodate learners. It is not unrealistic to think that education programming can be adapted to fit the overall facility’s adjustment protocols. We’re educators, after all, and we are used to curve balls.